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1921-23 - The Famine

The famine that struck large areas, particularly on the Volga and in Ukraine, in 1921-23 was caused only to a small degree by drought and other natural phenomena. In the main it was the consequence of the political developments of the preceding few years — the ruthless requisitioning of food, seed, and cattle; the creation of the Committees of the Poor; and in general the drive against the peasantry conducted under the slogan of fighting the kulaks. It was a man-made famine.

By the summer of 1921 the disaster had reached such proportions, and the prospects for the future appeared so bleak, that the government was forced to deviate from the accepted methods of propaganda and admit the facts. On August 2, 1921, Lenin signed an "Appeal to the Inter- national Proletariat" in which he asked for help : "Several provinces of Russia have been stricken by famine — a famine that seems to be only a little less severe than the disaster of 1891. "

Even at a moment like this Lenin could not bring himself to ask the Western nations for help; well aware of who was really in a position to give aid, he shamefacedly appealed only to "workers and small farmers" in other nations: "Help is needed. The Soviet Republic of workers and peasants expects this help to come from the toilers, the industrial workers and small farmers."

An International Workers' Relief Committee was set up to maintain the pretense. Figures published later by the Soviet government proved that the contribution of this relief committee was only a small one. As the famine assumed huge proportions, the government proceeded to publish factual reports and records gathered by its agencies. Photos of actual scenes from the famine-stricken areas were published, with such captions as:

"The black coffin is collecting corpses of children who died of starvation.

"A boy from the village of Karemukhi, Buzuluk County, Samara Gubernia, 34 dying of starvation.

"Remains of corpses taken from corpse-eaters, Buzuluk County, Samara Gubernia." [A gubernia was a large administrative territorial unit in Russia, which existed until the second half of the 1920's.]

The balance sheet of the disaster, compiled after the famine ended, was as follows: ". . . the population of the stricken Volga region and those in the Crimea amounts to about 25 million, and in five famine-stricken gubernias of the Ukraine, 9 million. Out of them about 23 million, i.e., about 70 per cent, were starving.. . . out of a total population of 3 1,922,000 in the famine-stricken regions, the number of starving was : In January 1922: 15,162,300. In April 1922: 20,113,800. In July 1922 : 22,558,500. " [Na Borbu s Posledstviyami Goloda, Rukovodstvo k Provedeniyu Agitkampanii Posledgol v Klubnykh Uchrezhdeniyakh Goroda i Derevni (On the Fight With the After Effects of the Famine, Guidance for the Conduct of a Propaganda Campaign on the After Effects of the Famine in City and Country Meetings) (Moscow: Glav- politprosvet (Central Board of Political Education) Publishing House, 1923), p. 4. ]

Some of the children were shipped in a "systematic" way from children's homes to regions which were better off; others stayed in the overcrowded and infested children's homes of the province. The bulk of them, however, left by their parents to the mercy of fate, were indeed derelicts. The horror of the children's homes — the freezing cold, the starvation, the filth, the lice, and the illness — was terrible; and the measures taken to fight these condi- tions were useless. It is obvious why children's corpses by the dozens were daily carried away from the children's homes.

Those who could move fled the famine-stricken areas; refugees numbered in the hundreds of thousands. At the end of summer 1921 a real panic developed. Drought, fires, cholera — all this aroused the population of the region as if an order had been given : look for safety, those who can ! The wave of migrants, traveling by cart roads, waterways, and railroads, spread widely. All who could travel were on the move. They used any available means of transportation.

Trains were overcrowded, waterways overloaded ; on all cart roads of the province, day and night, the creaking of vehicles and the sounds from nomad tents covered with oxhides were heard; camels roared, cows mooed, sheep bleated, and children cried and moaned.

The migrants were giving up their entire belongings for a trifle; they boarded up their izbas [huts] or sold them. In the fall of 1921 a well-equipped peasant farm could be bought for two or three poods [a pood is approximately 36 American pounds] of flour. Speculators and other obscure "business men" who appeared in the villages took advantage of the situation.

The weakened population fell easy prey to cholera and typhus, and epidemics raged in the famine-stricken areas. Cholera, always present in the Samara gubernia, this year caused consid- erable devastation. The cities suffered the most from the cholera.

Numerous incidents of cannibalism were reported in official Soviet documents.

"Human Corpses Are Being Eaten

Cases of eating of human corpses are becoming more frequent. . . .

. . . Citizen Shishkanov stole during the night into a barn, chose the corpse of an eight-year-old girl, cut off her legs, arms and head, and started to leave, but was detained. His explanation was that he was taking the baby corpse to use it as food.

In general it has been established that corpses are eaten by :

(a) relatives of the family of the deceased, including mothers and fathers;

(b) outsiders; in these cases corpses are stolen.

In the vicinity of the Buzuluk store, 12 cases of eating of human corpses were registered. In the village of Andreevka, Buzuluk County, frequent cases have been noted of stealing of corpses from warehouses where they were temporarily stored while awaiting burial by subbotniks [note so-called labor enthusiasts who worked on their rest days] in a common grave. The corpses are stolen to be used as food.

The following is a report of what happened on December 10, 1921 in the village of Blagodarovka, Buzuluk County :

... on the 9th of December a boy, Egor Vasilievich Pershikov, died; on the same day his mother, Avdotiya Pershikova, also passed away. On the morning of December 10 somebody informed [the authorities] that the boy was being hacked to pieces and would be cooked. Pelageya Satishcheva was the one who really wanted to cook the corpse. She said she was doing it because of hunger, that the boy had died of hunger, and that the boy was 11 years old.

When she started to hack the body to pieces, a little girl, Fedosya Kazyalina, ran to the neighbors and told them the story. The neighbor, Pelageya Sinelnikova, went to report this to the Soviet, where the Chairman of the Volost Executive Committee was present. ... It was established that an arm had indeed been chopped off, the belly cut open and the entrails re- moved, and that Pelageva Satishcheva had stated: "We will eat the boy, later we will cook the woman. . . ."

The Blagodarovsky Village Soviet hereby confirms the record, affixing its signatures and seal. The Chairman of the Soviet — Levkin. "

[Kniga o Golode (Book on the Famine) (Samara: Samara Division of the State Publishing House, 1922)]

Of the foreign organizations active in relief efforts, the American Relief Administration (ARA) was the most important. Headed by Herbert Hoover, it furnished more aid than all the other leUef organiza tions put together; the total value of American relief to Russia was about $60 million.

While visiting the United States in 1959 the Soviet First Deputy Premier Frol Kozlov asserted that the Soviet Union had paid for American help during the famine of 1921-22. His statements were wrong. Actually, "About one-fifth of the total dollar costs, running to some sixty-two million dollars, were covered by the Soviet Government itself which released some twelve million dollars from its gold reserve for this purpose. Of the remainder, about one-half was put up by the American Government. The rest came from private donations in the United States. In addition, the Soviet Government expended an estimated fourteen million dollars on behalf of the program in local currency." (George Kennan in the New York Times Magazine, July 19, 1959, p. 23.)

The American Joint Distribution Committee and the relief committee headed by the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen were also important in the relief efforts. The help given by the "capitalists" at this, one of the most terrible moments in Russian history, was not only officially overlooked, but was used to serve anti-American propaganda. In a textbook published in 1946 under the editorship ol the ranking Soviet historian Anna Pankratova, it was said:

"The Soviet government mobilized all means to help the starving. All over the country voluntary donations were collected under the slogan: 'Ten well-off must provide for one hungry. The capitalist world tried to make use of these new difficulties. Diversionists and spies set fires and arranged explosions in Soviet enterprises. The A.R.A., the American Organization to Help the Starving, was used for this hostile undermining work." (Istoriya S.S.S.R. Uchebnik dlya X Klassa Srednei Shkoly (History of the USSR, Textbook for the Tenth Grade of High School) (Moscow: Cos. Uchebno- Pedagog. Izd-vo Ministerstva Prosveshcheniya RSFSR (State Educational Pedagogical Publishing House of the Ministry of Education of the RSFSR), 1946), Tart III, p. 293.)

In general, of course, the disaster did not divert the government from its course. A group of well-known Russian liberals organized a 63-member Committee for Aid to the Hungry. After 1 month and 6 days the committee was disbanded by the police. Better no action than action by non-Communists, the government felt. As usual the committee was accused of subversion.

The secret police made a public report on its own contribution which read in part: ""The V-Cheka [All-Russian Extraordinary Committee] has issued a number of instructions concerning the tasks of its agencies and directives for the activities of [the] local commissions [the Chekas] to fight the famine. . . . . the local commissions must work in two directions: first, to intensify vigilance in regard to counter-revolutionary elements. . . ."

Another item in the activities of the police was the confiscation of church valuables — gold, silver, and other jewelry — allegedly in order to create a fund for the purchase of food abroad. Citizens all over the country resisted the confiscation of church valuables and the drive was accompanied by violence, arrests, and deaths. When the results of the confiscation from the churches were published, the total amount realized appeared strangely small— 1,344,824 gold rubles.

The situation began to improve in 1922, but the famine was not over until the end of 1923.




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Page last modified: 30-01-2016 19:10:18 ZULU